Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Emotivist objection to arguments for morality

Emotivism is the view that moral statements are subjective statements about a person's own attitudes toward behaviors. "Murder is wrong," is just another way of saying, "I hate murder."

One way moral objectivists try to persuade others of their point of view is by conjuring up the most heinous scenarios they can think of in hopes that the other person's moral intuitions will rise to the surface and they will realize that they already believe in objective morality. For example, they'll say things like, "If there are no objective moral values, then there's nothing really wrong with mother stabbing and father raping. It's just a matter of personal preference or social convention." Few people are willing to bite the bullet and say there's nothing really wrong with mother stabbing and father raping, so they are expected to admit that there really are objective morals. That is a tactic Greg Koukl advocates in Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air.

Some people object to this tactic on the basis that it makes a false appeal to emotions. All it does is manipulate people by stirring up their emotions. It doesn't follow that because you have very negative feelings about something that it's therefore wrong. So it's unfair to use people's emotions, bypassing their rationality, in order to convince them of objective morality. My friend, Angie, made a similar point in Conversations with Angie after reading Relativism.

When I reflect about my own moral intuitions and the emotions that are sometimes associated with them, it seems obvious to me that they are not the same thing. It could be that my emotions are causing me to think things are right or wrong, or it could be that my sense of right and wrong is causing me to be emotional about something, but my emotions and my moral intuitions seem obviously distinct.

For one thing, emotions do not have propositional content, but moral imperatives do. My sense that "People should not be mean to each other," is different than the emotion I feel when people are mean to each other. I don't just feel bad about certain actions. I think they're wrong. There's a difference.

It's not perfectly clear to me which is the cause and which is the effect, though. I can imagine that even if I didn't think something was wrong, I might still get emotional about it. I may think there's nothing wrong with being mean to people, but still not want people to do it just because I care about people. If so, then I'd get emotional about it even if I didn't think it was wrong. On the other hand, I may have an intellectual conviction that it's wrong for people to be mean to each other, but not really care whether they are because I don't care about people.

Greg Koukl thinks people already know certain things are wrong, but maybe they don't realize it because they haven't thought about it or been confronted with it. Getting their emotions riled up is a way of getting them to notice their moral intuitions. So in his view, your emotions don't cause you to think things are wrong. They just make you notice that you already think they are wrong.
They awaken your moral intuitions. Thinking that something wrong is what causes you to get emotional about it.

There are two more reasons I have a problem with emotivism--equating our emotions with our moral intuitions. First, if they were the same thing, then there should be a correlation between the strength of the emotion and the gravity of the sin. The stronger you felt about something, the more wrong you would think it was, and vice versa. But that is clearly not the case. You would probably feel far more anger and hurt if somebody murdered your own child than you would if you read about some child being murdered in some other country who you've never met. But you would think both murders were equally wrong.

Second, it's possible to think something is wrong and not be emotional about it. And, it's possible to be emotional about something and not think it's wrong. A person on death row may feel quite a bit of anger and sorrow about his fate, and yet not think anything wrong was being done to him. In fact, he may feel resentment and still think he is getting what he deserves. A person may think premarital sex is wrong, but feel really good about it and even be happy for people who are engaging in it. And if somebody's immoral activity benefits us in some way, we may think the other person did something wrong but still be quite thankful that they did it.

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